The holiday season is almost upon us, and you know what that means: It’s time to practice your karaoke version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and to dig out those flashcards to help you remember the names of your partner’s colleagues at the company holiday party.
Also, it’s time to prepare your family for cold and flu season. We spoke with Dr. Steve Lauer, the associate chair of pediatrics at the University of Kansas Health System, about how to stay healthy(ish) during the chilly, travel-focused months ahead.
Get a flu shot
“Make sure everybody is appropriately vaccinated,” Lauer told us. “Everyone over six months old needs to get vaccinated. It’s not just for the kids—it’s parents, grandparents… everyone who’s going to be involved with the kids during the season.”
Those on the younger or older ends of the aging spectrum should get the pneumococcal vaccine, too. This can help prevent that other common seasonal illness: strep.
If you’re traveling, germs are inevitable. Prepare accordingly.
Kids love to explore, which is normally a healthy thing, just not when it means touching (or, eek, licking) every germ-covered surface on the plane. Because that’s human nature, there’s not much you can do to prevent it, but you can try and limit the harm, Lauer says. Some easy tips include carrying hand sanitizer and reminding your kids to cover their coughs, as well as cleaning them up periodically to try and wipe up the germs. “But short of bundling them up and putting them in a box, there’s not so much you can do,” Lauer says.
And then, whether you’re at home or out and about, try and keep obviously sick people away from your kids. That might be hard to do if their irrepressible grandma is coming down with something, or if you yourself are sick. (More on that below.)
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It’s no secret that the holidays are a great time for gorging yourself on pies, cocktails and pie-themed cocktails. Lauer recognizes that we’re all only human, but a little moderation can go a long way. “There’s usually a ton of food around, so it’s important to make sure that we’re staying healthy with our food choices at least some of the time,” he says. “Make sure we’re not overdoing unhealthy choices, all the sweets and that. For the adults, making sure we’re not overdoing the adult beverages. Staying to some healthy parameters of what’s going into our bodies at this time.”
If you’re like us, you have at least one relative who will sneak your kid sweets when you’re not looking. It’s up to you if you want to fight that battle directly, but you can counteract it by keeping some healthy snacks on hand for the young ones. That said, if you haven’t been modeling and teaching healthy eating habits, this probably isn’t the season to start. “Food is supposed to be part of the whole holiday experience,” Lauer says. “You don’t want to be sitting there eating your tofu and your kale (though those are fine, too). If they’ve been eating sweets and chips and drinking sodas [all year long], this is probably not the time to start working on eating habits. Save that for the beginning of the year.”
Oh, and as for what foods might help stave off that next cold, “The answer to that really doesn’t change from the rest of the year,” Lauer says. “You want to make sure you’re keeping up with fruits and vegetables, since that’s where a lot of our vitamins and minerals come from—B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc. The sweets and fatty foods we focus on during the holiday season don’t have those.”
And finally, while you might associate dehydration with those long-gone sweaty summer days, it turns out you should be drinking lots of water in the cold months, too. “In winter, we’re not sweating as much, so people tend to drop off on their fluid intake,” Lauer says. “Frankly, almost everybody is dehydrated, which is one of those things that make the body not work as well.
Rest up, and call in sick if you have to
“It’s a time where we’re busy, and our schedules are packed,” Lauer says. “So make sure everybody gets their sleep. We tend to short ourselves because we’re busy—but the reality is, for our immunity, we need to be well rested.”
And while most of us don’t mind missing a day of work here or there—we’ll assume our boss isn’t reading this—skipping the office holiday party, or a Thanksgiving feast with the family, is a non-starter. But if you or your kids are sick, it’s probably the right thing to do. “People try and fight through it, so they stay sicker longer and get other people sick,” Lauer says. “We’re trying to see family, maybe some we haven’t seen in a while. But you just compound the whole problem.” Keep in mind that younger and older relatives are especially vulnerable during flu season, so you don’t want to be the one responsible for getting them sick.
Mind the weather
It’s cold outside (obviously), but spending a whole day inside with your family can be a shortcut to insanity. So if you venture out of doors, just keep an eye on how long you’re out there, especially if your child is as coat-averse as mine. “Kids will run outside until they’re literally blue, and they’ll still say ‘No, I’m fine,’” Lauer says. “As we get below freezing—especially into the teens, that bitter cold—the younger kids will get cold pretty quickly because they’re not very big. Some time outside is better for the kids’ physical health and probably the parents’ mental health. But after 10 or 15 minutes, you have to pay attention. Just like leaving them in the car in the middle of the summer can be a threat.”
It turns out the change in the weather can also affect the inside of your home, which you might already know if you have indoor allergies. “If you’re allergic to mold, look around the house,” Lauer says. “Is there anything hiding under some tile or behind some wood? It’s certainly a chance to look around the house—basements, bathrooms, see if anything that snuck in over the summer.”
All of which is to say: Use your common sense. If you’re sick, rest up and try not to get anyone else sick. Try and eat right, both for your long-term health and so your immune system is at full power. And accept that, even if you do all of those things, some sickness is probably inevitable—for you, and your little ones.
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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children.